There’s been plenty of talk the past few years about whether or not LeBron James or Michael Jordan should be considered the greatest basketball player of all-time. Taking the same debate and putting it into NFL context can be a bit tricky. There is no consensus for an individual player who is widely considered the greatest of all-time. However, there are several players who are considered the greatest offensive players of all-time at their position.
NFL Greatest Offensive Players of All-Time Past and Present
Throughout the history of the NFL, many players have laid claim to the title of greatest of all-time. Quarterbacks Joe Montana and Tom Brady have been the topic of heated debates, when sports fans and prognosticators compare their stats. Here’s a breakdown of the greatest offensive football players of all-time past and their present day counterparts.
Joe Montana has been considered the GOAT at the quarterback position since the early 1990s. His four for four record in the Super Bowl is the primary reason. Coming out of college, Montana wasn’t heralded as a player destined for greatness. In fact, he was taken in the third round by the San Francisco 49ers with the 82nd pick in the 1979 draft. Montana was described by some as a lanky, pretty boy with a noodle for an arm but he was also called a winner.
After witnessing him lead Notre Dame to a national title in 1977, no one could deny his ability to win. Montana earned his lore in the playoffs. He was an incredible 16 wins against seven losses in his career. He passed for 6,000 yards and threw for 45 touchdowns in those games with only 21 interceptions. His four Super Bowl Championships and gold jacket are well-deserved.
Tom Brady has been making his case as the GOAT at the quarterback position for a little over a decade and a half. He too, was overlooked in his draft class. Six quarterbacks were selected ahead of him in the 2000 draft before the New England Patriots selected him in the sixth round with the 199th pick. At 6’4”, Brady was long but he was very slow and didn’t impress many team with his combine workout. His arm was considered decent by scouts but it wasn’t a difference-maker.
He got his chance in 2001 and hasn’t looked back. Brady has competed in 34 playoff games in his career. His record is 25-9 in those games. His stats are just as amazing as Montana’s. Brady has thrown for 63 touchdowns against 31 interceptions and counting. His five Super Bowl championships make him the only starting quarterback in NFL history to accomplish that feat His case is rested.
There are many who believe that former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders was the greatest player to run with a football under his arm of all-time. Sanders wasn’t highly-touted coming out of high school. He stormed on the scene as a return specialist while backing up current hall of fame running back Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State University.
The 5’8”, 203 pound running back won the Heisman Trophy in 1988 and was drafted with third pick overall in the 1989 draft. Sanders exploded for a string of nine consecutive thousand yard seasons, including 2,053 yards in 1997. He finished his career with an astounding 15,269 yards to go along with 99 rushing touchdowns. The only knock against Sanders as the GOAT of running backs is his missing Super Bowl title. Many of the other runners on the list have at least one championship.
This is a tough one but for the majority of his career New Orleans Saints running back Adrian Peterson has delivered the goods better than any of his peers. Peterson has amassed 11,747 yards in his career, despite missing all or part of four out of 11 seasons. The physical runner has also produced 97 rushing touchdowns, which is two short of Sanders’ total. His running style has cost him a time or two but when he’s available, he does damage. Peterson was drafted with by the Minnesota Vikings with the seventh pick in the 2007 draft out of Oklahoma.
In his rookie season, Peterson ran for 1,341 yards, including a long of 73 yards. His production waned last season but he was only able to make three starts. He was signed as a free agent by the New Orleans Saints in the off-season and should benefit from having a gunslinger like Drew Brees under center. If Peterson is able to capture that elusive Super Bowl title, he just might be able to make his case as the GOAT at the running back position.
The consensus choice here is former San Francisco receiver Jerry Rice. Some have even called Rice the single greatest football player of all-time. His career numbers are simply out of this world. The 6’2” 200 pound pass-catcher hauled in 1,549 receptions for a whopping 22,895 yards. However, the most astonishing number associated with the receiver is the number of receiving touchdowns he scored in his time on the gridiron.
Rice caught 197 touchdowns during his playing days to go along with another ten as a rusher. The next closest receiver with as many touchdown receptions is Randy Moss who finished his career in 2012 with 156. Ironically, Moss was able to move into second place on just 982 catches. Moss can definitely stake his claim as GOAT at the receiver position with those numbers but his cupboard is bare where championships are concerned.
On the other hand, Rice was a key contributor for three 49ers Super Bowl championship teams, as well as Super Bowl MVP in 1988. Rice also finished his playoff career as a four-time champion, played in another Super Bowl, accumulating an NFL record 151 catches, 2,245 yards and 22 touchdowns. Those types of numbers are safe for the foreseeable future.
Although Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s career is coming to an end, his numbers cannot be denied. Fitzgerald’s durability and consistency help him stake claim as the GOAT of wide receivers. In his 12-year career, the 6’3” 225 pound marvel has amassed 1,125 receptions, 14,389 yards and 104 touchdowns. Despite having to adjust to a few different starting quarterbacks during his tenure, Fitzgerald has remained a constant in the Cardinals offense.
The receiver entered the league in 2004 but his team did not make the playoffs until 2008 where Fitzgerald delivered a record-breaking performance for the entire world to see. During the Cardinals four-game run, the receiver was targeted 42 times and snagged 30 receptions for 546 yards and seven touchdowns, surpassing Rice’s total from 1988-89. The championship has eluded the play-maker but his will to win and passion have kept him productive throughout his career.
Former Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is considered the greatest of all-time by many sports fans and reporters. He is the career-leader for a tight end in receptions with 1,325, yardage with 15,127 and is currently tied with San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates with 111 touchdowns. The list of records he set during his 16-year career is almost a mile long and clearly sets him apart from anyone else who has played the position.
Gonzalez’s athleticism and his 6’5” 251 pound frame made him a bit of a freak as a tight end, forcing defensive coordinators to come up with colorful schemes just to slow him down. He had the size to battle against linebackers in space and the speed to run away from defensive backs. Gonzalez experienced plenty of success as an individual but his teams failed miserably in the post-season. In seven career games, Gonzalez produced 30 receptions for 286 yards and four touchdowns. He put up good numbers but his teams need more from him to advance.
Gonzalez’s closest competitor by the numbers is current Los Angeles Chargers tight end Antonio Gates. Although Gates’s teams haven’t experienced much success in the post-season, he has been a big contributor throughout his career. Like Gonzalez, Gates doubled as a basketball player in college.
It’s no surprise that some of the skills he acquired on the gym floor have translated to increased production on the gridiron. In 13 years, Gates has delivered an incredible 897 catches, 11,192 yards and of course the aforementioned 111 touchdowns that have him tied for the lead as a tight end with Gonzalez. The similarities don’t stop there.
Also like Gonzalez, Gates has never sniffed a Super Bowl. His team did make the AFC Championship game in 2008 but fell to an undefeated New England Patriots team when Gates played with a dislocated toe. In the playoffs, teams have pretty much kept Gates under wraps holding him to just one touchdown in ten career games.
In the 1980s, New York Giants outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor’s ability to rush the pass mostly from the quarterback’s blind-side revolutionized the game. It forced offensive coordinators to find top of the line offensive lineman to play at the left offensive tackle spot to prevent Taylor and many other pass-rushers from bringing the pain to unsuspecting pocket-passers. Enter former Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Anthony Muñoz.
Drafted in 1980, Muñoz became the standard by which all left offensive tackles are measured. The ferocious yet nimble pass-protector combined intelligence and brutality to save many a quarterback form taking a beating on a given Sunday or Monday for that matter. As far as the greatest offensive linemen are concerned, there is no one more deserving of the title.
For 12 years, Muñoz started 184 out of 185 games he was suited up for and surprisingly accumulated four touchdowns of his own. He also played in two Super Bowls only to lose to 49ers teams led by Montana in 1981 then to Montana and Rice in 1989. It’s not too shabby to lose out on championship trophies, when it’s done against two of the other GOATs on this list. Munoz set the standard and offensive teams in the NFL live by it to this day.
Six-year veteran offensive tackle Tyron Smith of the Dallas Cowboys is considered by many to be the most complete and effective offensive lineman in today’s game. Smith was inserted into the team’s starting lineup in his rookie season has been extremely productive as an individual. His teams haven’t experienced a lot of success but the player has been the key cog in in clearing lanes for two of the last three leading rushers. Both Demarco Murray and Ezekiel Elliott were able to capture rushing titles with Smith as the driving force upfront.
Smith blends brute strength with incredible footwork to punish defenders on almost every snap. He has suffered through back injuries the past few seasons but his production has not faltered. Whenever the 6’5”, 312 pound behemoth lines up, his opponent knows that a battle is about to ensue. Smith is still a young player with a chance to compete for a Super Bowl title clearly in view. Maintaining his current pace of production and securing a championship ring could cement him as the GOAT of offensive lineman in the next few years.
The greatest football player of all-time discussion will forever be ongoing. Separating the contenders by position is much more realistic than trying to pinpoint one individual to stand alone at the top of the football mountain. There have been many amazing performers on the gridiron, offensively. But the defensive side of the ball has had its fair share of greats, as well. Look for part two of this two-part series next week where the greatest defensive players of all-time past and present will be the focus.